“It would be super fun to work together. However, I am sorry to say that we are not able to handle any new wines for the next couple of years. We’ve got our hands full.I wish I could help but we are more interested in losing smaller brands than bringing on new ones at the moment!”
This genuine reply from one of the most dynamic and respected distributors in the US – someone I’ll call George - ought to be pinned on almost every wine producer’s wall.
There are four inconvenient truths the wine industry has to absorb.
- There is more decently-made, perfectly drinkable, wine on offer today than at any time since man first crushed a grape. (This, by the way, includes widely- and unjustly-decried ‘bulk wine’ as well as the natural wines that have improved beyond recognition in recent years).
- There are more wines – brands, private labels, cuvées, reserves – than ever before, produced from a wider range of grape varieties in a wider range of places.
- Every importer or wholesaler warehouse, retail shelf or restaurant list has a finite size. When a wine merchant or sommelier discovers a wine they like and want to sell, sooner or later, another wine will almost certainly have to be delisted to make space for it.
- No one wants to carry passengers. However delicious it may be, and whatever its long term prospects, a wine that is not paying its way in the form of sufficient sales, is living on borrowed time. And the same may be true of ‘hand-sell’ wines that require extra effort to find customers.
As George says all too bluntly, ‘smaller brands’ – wines he almost certainly enjoys drinking, made by people he respects and likes - are especially vulnerable.
So, what does this mean for producers who aren’t ready to retire or take up another profession?
Unless they are among the few who are lucky or skilled enough to have already acquired or been gifted a sizeable and loyal fan base, quite simply it means that they are going to put a lot more effort into doing the stuff a lot of them don’t really enjoy: selling.
Good isn't good enough
Telling George and his fellow distributors that a wine is delicious and fairly priced is not going to be enough. And nor may the ‘stories’ that are supposed to be so essential today, though they might help.
Some producers may uncomfortably have to make a case for listing their wine that could involve supplanting their neighbours’ bottles. They might have to do something many smaller European estates have never considered: create a Powerpoint sales presentation titled “Why You Should Sell This Wine” or something of that kind.
A few minutes searching online will provide examples of these presentations, but what they often have in common is in omitting even to mention the product for the first few slides.
Instead, there will be brief expositions of the state of the market and the challenges faced by the target customer.
Only then will you introduce your wine and the way it – and working with you - will improve the target customer’s working life: the benefit it will bring to their business.
Brutally, the efficiency of your ordering procedure and delivery service or the time you’d be happy to put into hosting tastings or training staff, or your huge social media following might be more valuable to them than the complex minerality of the liquid in the bottle.
Even if you don’t feel like using a laptop screen or iPad to make your case, it is worth taking the time to understand the principles behind these presentations: the need to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and your readiness to solve their problems.
Any producer wanting to sell to George needs to analyse his current portfolio, to identify its weaknesses and how best to address them. Simply telling him that he really must taste your delicious new wine isn’t likely to work.